Jewish Renewal and the aging of aquarius

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was embraced as a father figure by Jewish Renewal.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was embraced as a father figure by Jewish Renewal.

It is a Judaism born of youth but which venerates elders. It wears the stamp of 1960s and ’70s American youth culture but draws inspiration from Old Country chasidism and traditions from the East.

Jewish Renewal is not a movement in the sense of the major Jewish movements. There is no central headquarters, no officially sanctioned rabbinic seminary, no hierarchy. It is an American Judaism born of the cultural and social changes of the second half of the 20th century, when leaders, experts and institutions were called into disrepute.

“Jewish Renewal seeks, by and large, the revitalization of Jewish Life,” says Rabbi David Shneyer of Am Kolel, a Renewal community that meets in Bethesda and at a retreat center in Beallsville, Md.

“Renewal of Jewish spirit, of Jewish practices, celebration, liturgy, renewal that comes through music. The umbrella name that many of us used was the Jewish counterculture.”

From the first, Renewal was egalitarian, feminist and inclusive. “Part of renewal is about outreach,” Shneyer says. “People who have felt disconnected from Jewish life, intermarried. We try to make a place for them.” His community also practices what Shneyer calls “deep ecumenism” – meaningful
connections – in its outreach to other faith groups.

Born in egalitarianism, Renewal found its father figure in Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Lubavitcher Chasid who left his movement to follow his own path. In the 1960s, Schachter-Shalomi, who died in July at 89, founded B’nai Or Religious Fellowship, now known as Aleph: Institute for Jewish Renewal. Like fellow ex-Lubavitcher Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, also identified with Jewish Renewal, Schachter-Shalomi ordained his own students and planted seeds for a new generation.

For a time, P’nai Or (as B’nai Or was later renamed) merged with the Shalom Center, led by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a political activist and author whose books include Seasons of our Joy. Waskow was a founder of one of the first chavurot, small, participatory communities. Fabrangen, in Washington, D.C., first met in 1971, and continues without what many other congregations call a “spiritual leader.”

From early on, many Jews who were attracted to Jewish Renewal were drawn to Jewish mysticism or were returning to Judaism after exploring Eastern religions.

“That’s not for everybody,” Shneyer explains. “A third of our members identify strongly with that.”

But what was, until the 1960s, considered alternative in American Judaism, is mainstream in Jewish Renewal – meditation, chanting, contemplative Torah study, dance. Am Kolel’s retreat center has a meditation center. The Elat Chayyim retreat center in Connecticut was inspired by Renewal, as was the Center for Jewish Mindfulness in Chicago, Shneyer says.

Jewish Renewal has aged along with the baby boomers that founded it, Shneyer says. “One of the challenges is how to attract younger members. How to transmit the philosophy of Renewal. We’re doing it in our own way through our Kibbutz Buber.”

The Martin Buber Youth Kibbutz, Am Kolel’s summer camp named for philosopher Martin Buber, brings children 10 and older to the Beallsville retreat center to live cooperatively, to practice prayer and contemplation, to do physical work and study Martin Buber, known for his philosophy that distinguishes between the I–Thou relationship and the I–It relationship.

Jewish Renewal, Shneyer says, is “the urge to find meaning and renew our relationship with our traditions. If it stays the same too long, it’s not Renewal.”

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Other articles in this series:

Humanist: Judaism Without God

Conservative: A Year After Pew

Reconstructionist: Head and Heart

Orthodox:  A Matter of Balance

Reform Reaches Out

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